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A Love Letter To The Crazy Life

Photo: Axel Koester
There will always be people from your past that trivialize change, sermonize poison, and disparage dreams. But for those people from your past that encourage and support you—never forget them in your journey.

Sunbeams splashed down onto the back of my neck as I waited. Nervous vibrations galloped up my spine. The idea that anyone could fight six people at once, let alone win, seemed absurd. But winning wasn’t the point. When it comes to Mexican American street gangs, it’s not about logic, it’s about pride and corazón.

“Ten minutes,” Oso grumbled. His pupils swirled and pulsated. Like most gang members, his nickname derived from a distinct physical or social characteristic. Yet despite his broad chest, inset brow and gaping knuckles, it was his tattoo-covered face that intimidated people most—even rival gang members. 

He handed me a 40-ounce bottle of Steel Reserve as we waited. I finished what remained, savoring the alcohol as it surged around the edges of my tongue. I was no stranger to gang initiations. As a young child I had watched dozens of them, stood silent as friends from school and around the neighborhood got swallowed up like sardines trapped in the rip current of a ravenous whale.

Now it was my turn.

Car horns severed the breeze. I glanced to the bottom of the hill. In the distance, a precession of dropped Chevys wound their way up the hill, gliding to a stop at the mouth of the park. After a moment, the doors swung open and a throng of men with shaved heads spilled onto the sidewalk.  

There was no mistaking who we were. Like soldados slipping on a uniform and preparing for war each morning, we took pride in the way we appeared. Our shoes were always polished. Our pants were always starched. Our shirts were always creased. We called this “looking clean.”

I slung the empty bottle into a nearby bush and turned my attention back to the six gang members with shaved heads already surrounding me. “Try not to break my nose,” I said.

Everybody laughed. Then, without warning, a voice in the crowdbegan to count aloud, “One…!”

Without wasting a moment, the six men began to kick and punch me. Blood gushed out of my nose. I stumbled backward, wincing and reeling from the blows. I had never been in a fight before, but I knew the consequences of being perceived as a coward. I quickly reclaimed my footing and threw a punch of my own in return. Just as fast, a second fist blindsided me and knocked me to the ground.

The counting continued, “Three…! Four…! Five…! I tried to climb back to my feet, but they swarmed over top of me, kicking and punching me. “Six…! Seven…! Eight…!”

I curled up and covered my head. The counting felt like it would never stop. One of the men hoisted me into the air from behind as the others punched me like a boxing bag before hurling me back down onto the rocks. “Nine…! Ten…! Eleven…!”

I rolled over and spit out a mouth full of blood. Eventually the counting stopped. Seconds later, my homeboy Spanky, who appeared slightly out of focus, leaned over me with a concerned look. “You alright, homie?”

I wiped the blood from my face and forehead and climbed to my feet, “Yeah, I’m cool.”

The others looked on, as if observing the baleful aftermath of a tornado that had just orbited through. “Damn, dog, we thought we killed you,” one of them said with a big smile. “We almost stopped early.”

I patted off my clothing and downed another bottle of malt liquor. Then, after a few fist bumps, I staggered to the edge of the hill and gazed down on a little league baseball game in process.

Clouds swerved across the horizon. The children reminded me of my own lost solace and intrigue. As an elementary school student, I had once played shortstop on the same field. But innocence and optimism had long since departed from the stage of life. Old dreams suddenly felt foreign. Past aspirations suddenly seemed absent—unexpectedly gone like ghosts.

I closed my eyes and listened to the cheers rage skyward as if destined for the perforated surface of the moon. I wondered if I would ever learn to love something as meaningless and trivial as a sport again.

The next decade would prove a whirlwind. Shootings, stabbings, jail stints—a brotherhood few would understand. Yet there was something enduring about my closest friends. Most nights we weren’t out committing crimes at all. Most nights we simply chilled, barbecued, restored classic cars, courted hynas, crashed Quinceañeras, smoked joints, blasted oldies.

We were young. We were stupid. And while we would never admit it, most of us came from broken homes. Homes without fathers. Homes without love. Homes without structure. Not a day passed where I didn’t try to numb the pain with drugs or alcohol. But it wasn’t until I was older that I realized I was addicted to more than drugs and alcohol. I was addicted to a lifestyle. I was hostage to a pattern of thought.

I’m still a hostage.

The parallels between drug addiction and the gang life are undeniable. Recovery is constant. Complacency leads to relapse. And relapse can lead to deadly consequences. Yet despite the obvious dangers involved, not a single day goes by where past gang related experiences don’t still impact everyday life.

Ten years of anything will inevitably shape and mark a person. Each morning I’m reminded of this as the scars on my naked body reflect through the bathroom mirror like vestiges from a secret past life—waiting, calling, pleading to be exercised. Yet no matter what I try, nothing quite seems to replace the power, thrills, and camaraderie I once felt living “the crazy life.”

Or maybe “the crazy life” was nothing like I remember it. Despite the distinct fashion and beautiful art on the surface for which it has become famous, it was also riddled with violence, addiction, and self-destruction.

There was, after all, a reason I walked away from it to begin with.

Did I lose a few friends along the way? Without a doubt, there will always be people from your past that trivialize change, sermonize poison, and disparage dreams. But for those people from your past that encourage and support you—never forget them in your journey. Always include them in your triumphs. Never forget where you came from. Because at the end of the day, when all the cheap cocktails, plastic smiles, and paper credentials are stripped away, your roots are all you have. 

About the author

Brandon Loran Maxwell

Brandon Loran Maxwell is a writer, speaker, and prize winning essayist. His writings have been cited at the U.S. Supreme Court, The Los Angeles Times, Vox, and The Washington Post. In addition, his writings have been published at The Hill, Salon, Townhall, The Washington Examiner, The Oregonian, and the Foundation For Economic Education, among others. He regularly speaks on various social topics. His personal essay "Notes From An American Prisoner" was awarded a Writer's Digest prize in 2014. He holds a B.S. in political science, and writes about politics and culture.

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